Our family believes in natural and logical consequences. We also strive for positive guidance through tough situations. But when a child becomes defiant or lies, natural consequences feel a little less “black and white” and a lot more confusing both for parent and child. It’s easy to feel like we’re grasping at straws to find a logical outcome instead of an illogical punishment. So how do we work to find an approach to appropriately teach our children appropriate and respectful behavior in these instances?
What’s the difference between consequences and punishment?
We first have to talk about what exactly consequences are in order to understand how to enforce them. We also have to understand how a child’s brain works.
From birth, babies learn patterns and recognize outcomes (1). They learn before the age of one to cry to get a parent to come in the room and they see patterns both in their physical world and even relationships between people and things. By around 26 weeks (or 6 months old), babies can understand the relationship between an action and a sound (2). However, in the preschool years and even through early childhood, kids sometimes fail to fully understand the process of cause and effect; therefore we must guide them through it (3) (4).
Consequences are, very simply, the result of any action or behavior regardless of appropriate or not. They are the direct result of an action. Punishments are a negative reaction to a situation.
For a child to understand that every action they make has an outcome, good or bad, means they’re learning discipline and character to acknowledge and follow through with the repercussions of their decisions. This is what make consequences important and also superior to punishments.
Consequences vs. punishments example
If a child studies hard and gets a good grade on a test, the consequence of studying is getting high marks to prove it. If the same student does not study on the next test and performs poorly, they suffer the negative consequence. And if that child goes home and his/her parent takes away TV for 3 weeks because of the bad grade, they are experiencing a punishment.
Punishment typically uses shame for a behavior modification, not loving guidance to learn from their actions.
Consequences can guide a child towards a desired behavior, whereas punishments can leave them confused and/or fearful because it typically isn’t a logical outcome. Have you ever heard of a child giving up because they know they’ll just get in trouble? That’s typically the result of punishments and a disconnect in understanding how to modify their own behavior.
But what’s the difference between natural consequences and logical consequences?
Understanding Natural vs. Logical Consequences and Positive Guidance
Natural consequences just kind of happen. No one needs to intervene or step in to make them a reality. So back to the example of studying… a child is going to get a grade whether they study or not. And while as parents, we can discuss what our kids learn from the experience, they’re going to feel the effects regardless. That’s a natural consequence.
However, a situation that requires guidance through cause and effect where the adult sees the event and then institutes an effect is a logical consequence. Hitting typically doesn’t have a natural consequence beyond their friend being sad. So two of many logical consequences would be that a child loses the privilege of using their hands or they do not get to spend time next to their friend.
Sometimes a consequence is 100% appropriate. However, there’s also a point when as parents we can move from punishment, to consequences, to positive guidance.
This is because consequences can still send a punitive message to kids when in reality they’re seeking, desiring, and needing guidance. At which point as parents we have to walk alongside our kids to help them understand how to navigate tricky and difficult situations.
Positive Solutions to tough behaviors
How to handle defiance with logical consequences and positive guidance.
Defiance almost always is the result of some other underlying issue. It’s a way kids can lash out from their bubbling, churning emotions on the inside:
Feel out of control? Use defiance to try to exert control.
Feel overwhelmed by what’s been asked? Act out of anxiety and defy what’s expected.
Think a rule is stupid? Just ignore it, maybe it will go away.
Don’t understand why it’s being asked? Do something else that makes more sense to me.
It’s different from standing their ground. In fact, we should encourage our children to hold tight to their convictions and be willing to have open, honest discussions with them to know when they believe strongly in something.
A deep underlying issue in true defiance is respect. Respecting you as the parent enough to do what you say and know that it is the right thing, the most logical thing, the most important thing they should do… That you have their absolute best interest in mind. So we have to prove that to them first and foremost.
If they cannot do what they are asked, they lose the freedom to operate independently (even though it’s not likely to be convenient on the parent either).
Positive Guidance and Alternative responses: Sometimes defiance come from a lack of understanding, so offering effective instruction or giving two choices can guide a child to do the task independently.
What can a parent do to discourage lying?
If you’re thinking “My kid is a defiant liar. What do I do?” then you’re not alone. There are two important approaches to understanding why a child lies and how to handle it. First, look at the intention of the action rather than the lie and then confront the situation head on.
So if a child wants to do something like use an item they’re not supposed to offer an introductory acknowledgment that we saw them and then offer an appropriate time and place to use the item or do the activity. This prevents them from having the opportunity to fib.
When a parent know their child is going to lie that they were not doing something or that is not their fault, etc. is to open up conversation differently from the beginning.
How to prevent kids from outright lying
“I noticed you were using ____. Is there a time you would like to sit down with me to play with it?”
“I know that you like drawing, but can we find a more appropriate place to color?”
“If you want to ____, can we talk about it?”
“Can you tell me why you were ____?” (Sometimes is followed by “I wasn’t” to which “Then please explain what you were doing” is an appropriate response.)
“If you would like to ____, I would happy to find you a better way to do that.”
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Lying is also a developmental marker. For toddlers, they sometimes lie without understanding. Preschoolers and young kids lie to self-preserve because they know they did something wrong. Around the ages of 7-9, kids learn developmentally that they can lie to manipulate a situation or outcome.
For instance our daughter started sneaking donuts at church when she walked downstairs. The natural consequence is that we didn’t trust her to walk alone anymore. But the logical consequence would be to not actually allow her to walk alone for a set amount of time.
Positive Guidance: Explain how you understand that lying is a way to try to get out of trouble, but that it creates distrust and tension in friendships and family. Help them understand it’s ok to make a mistake, but we have to learn from the mistakes. Offer to remind your child when you notice them heading on a path that might not be where they need to go.
How do I handle a child that pretends to not know how to do something?
As an offshoot and subset of lying, this is another tricky situation. Sometimes in development, kids have regressions. So they legitimately may not remember where something goes or might struggle doing something they once thought was easy. So first, we might assess a child as a whole and might see that they could feel like they don’t know how to do it.
Regardless we can encourage them and try to motivate them to try.
Positive Guidance: Get down beside them and help, explaining that sometimes things are difficult, but that “we’re a family that helps each other” and that’s something they can always know and count on. Help them understand that they don’t ever have to pretend.
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Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 4 children living in Boston, MA and believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!